Eswatini government denies King Mswati has fled country — but still imposes curfew as pro-democracy protests spread
On Tuesday the rioting spread to the capital, Mbabane, where journalists said residents were fleeing the city, causing traffic jams.
The Eswatini government imposed a dusk to dawn curfew and closed schools on Tuesday as violent protests against the autocratic rule of King Mswati III swept across the country for the fourth day.
Security forces clamped down firmly, using live ammunition against protesters, killing one and injuring at least seven, according to activists and opposition politicians. This could not be confirmed.
The government has denied reports on social media that Mswati fled the country on Monday night to escape the violence, and journalists and other observers agreed it was very unlikely he would have left the kingdom.
On Tuesday the rioting spread to the capital, Mbabane, where journalists said residents were fleeing the city, causing traffic jams. A shop assistant in Mbabane told the Reuters news agency: “I can hear gunshots and smell teargas. I do not know how I will get home, there is nothing in the bus rank, there is a strong presence of riot police and the army.”
A resident of the commercial capital, Manzini, said security forces flooded the city on Tuesday and most businesses had closed.
Protesters torched and looted shops, ATMs, government offices and official and commercial vehicles in the industrial town of Matsapha on Monday, and security forces were deployed there in the evening.
Social media posted videos of OK Foods in the town being torched and looted. Journalists said Shoprite Checkers had also been attacked, but this could not be confirmed. The wave of protests appeared to have been sparked by the death of a law student, Thabani Nkomonye, in police custody last month.
Low-level protests had continued since then and the government imposed a ban on political gatherings last week. But protests surged on Saturday in the rural town of Siphofaneni, about 50km southeast of Mbabane.
The Times of Swaziland said the government’s banning of the delivery of petitions of grievances to members of parliament in their constituencies had sparked the protests.
The National Commissioner of Police, William Tsitsibala Dlamini, told the Swazi Observer that five police vehicles and an ambulance were damaged in the course of their operations. Shops were looted and the protesters tried to set fire to revenue offices, he said.
He blamed Siphofaneni MP Mduduzi “Gawuzela” Simelane — a popular pro-democracy politician — for the chaos, saying Simelane had defied a “lawful” order by himself and acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku that the delivery of the petitions should be stopped.
On Tuesday evening Masuku issued a statement in which he said the government was imposing an immediate curfew from 6pm to 5am to protect the safety of all citizens.
“All offices must be closed by 3.30pm to allow workers to get home safely. Essential workers will be required to produce a permit when travelling at night. No one is expected to be in the streets after 6pm.
“Government has also taken the decision to suspend schools with immediate effect. This has been done to protect the lives of children.”
Masuku said the protests had been “hijacked by criminal elements” and vowed that the police would maintain law and order. He denied that the ban on petitioning MPs directly was intended to prevent Emaswati from raising grievances.
“This is a conscious decision to maintain the rule of law and de-escalate tension that had turned this exercise into violence and disorder.
“Government has been following these protests and we want to assure the nation that these concerns have reached our ears and we are addressing them. We will be working with Parliament and all concerned stakeholders to action them accordingly.”
He gave the Swazi people an email address to which they could send their petitions electronically.
Masuku earlier denied reports on Swazi social media that Mswati had fled the country.
A Swazi online news site had posted a video of Mswati embarking on the royal jet, but a local journalist told Daily Maverick it was an old video. Masuku said the reports were “false”.
The king is “in the country and continues to lead”, Masuku said, appealing for “calm, restraint and peace”.
Veteran journalist Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation news magazine, which is often highly critical of the government, told Daily Maverick he did not believe Mswati had fled. He said this had been confirmed by a trusted palace source.
He said he did not believe the situation in Eswatini would have warranted Mswati abandoning the country.
South Africa’s High Commissioner to Eswatini, Thoko Majokweni-Sipamla, also told Daily Maverick on Tuesday morning that she did not believe Mswati had left. She said Foreign Minister Thuli Dladla had told her that she (Dladla) and Masuku had been with Mswati at the palace earlier on Tuesday.
Some tweeters reported that the MTN Eswatini mobile phone network was no longer working and many Swazi websites seemed to be blocked.
It was also reported that the arrest has been ordered of two MPs who have been at the forefront of calls for democratic change.
A Manzini resident told AFP she and colleagues were holed up in the restaurant where they worked and were unable to return home.
“Helicopters are extinguishing the fires lit on the roads,” she said, asking not to be named.
People had looted a furniture store and on Monday some shops were burnt down, she said.
“The military is on the streets,” Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the pro-democracy grouping Swaziland Solidarity Network, told AFP.
“Yesterday was the worst night ever, where a young man was shot point-blank by the army, and some are in hospital as we speak,” Lukhele charged.
Wandile Dludlu, secretary-general of the People’s United Democratic Movement, said: “Mswati unleashed armed soldiers and police on unarmed civilians yesterday.”
More than 250 protesters had been injured, some of them with gunshot wounds, he said. DM